I've decided to start a new feature for Fridays - Every other Friday, I'll showcase a snippet from either a work in progress or an old manuscript, a new short story, or random poem or scene from a never-finished book. If you like what you read, be sure to leave a comment below!
Today's #FridayReads is from a work-in-progress tentatively called Jenny Goonight. It's a western about a travel-worn missionary woman who goes to visit her uncle, famed Civil War reporter Matthew Goodnight, in the town of Evanston, only to find her uncle embroiled in a power struggle with Varina Evans, wife of the town's founder. But Matthew isn't the man Jenny thought she knew and things go from bad to worse when a body turns up and Jenny finds herself accused of the killing.
In this scene, Varina Evans hears some disturbing news and turns to her son, the quick tempered John Henry, for advice.
Varina Lee Evans stood in a warm glow of the light, watching as the buckboard disappeared into the gathering darkness. Elizabeth and Josie Walsh, the wife and daughter of the general store owner, had come to pay a social call. At least, that was the reason Josie understood for their coming and it was the excuse that both Varina and Elizabeth would use, should anyone ask.
Elizabeth had come for advice, advice that she could ask of neither the Pastor nor from her husband, Elliot, and she was not Catholic that she could confide in a priest. That left, very naturally to her mind, the Widow Evans.
Varina Evans and Elizabeth Walsh were not what people might refer to as bosom friends. In fact, there was no one in town that could claim that relationship with Varina, unless it was her daughter-in-law, Helen. It was not close-friendship that brought Elizabeth to Varina, then, but a sort of fealty. The Evans were the founders of Evanston, the owners of the largest spread, and, according to most, the de facto rulers of the town, a story that Varina and both of her sons vehemently denied. But distance themselves as they might, people still thought of them as the chief family in town and when there was a civic problem, the Evans were usually the first turned to.
Darkness closed around the buckboard and the rattling sound faded as the two women drove back to town. Varina thought, It wasn’t too long ago when such a short journey would have been too dangerous for two unarmed women. How fast things have changed.
Now the dangers were different.
From somewhere in the house, a door slammed heavily and she heard her son’s voice echoing through the rooms. John Henry had returned and from the sound of his voice, he’d seen the editorial, too.
She left the relative peace of the darkened porch and went inside.
The Evans mansion, as it was called by the locals, was an enormous, rambling structure that combined the practical needs of a ranch headquarters with the style of a Southern plantation house. The over-sized rooms were decorated with rich wall paper and plush carpeting, ornate candelabras, and heavy furniture. There was a piano in the parlor and a balcony outside her bedroom. Her deceased husband John had done his best, in a heavy-handed fashion, to provide her with a house that was like the one she’d grown up in. He'd succeeded only in reminding her how different life out west was from the one she’d known.
John Henry was in the living room, standing before the fire place, rubbing his chin. He was dusty and grimy from the road, and the full day and he looked as though he’d love to put his fist through the wall. Trigger Olsen, one of their senior hands, was present too, running his hat through his hands.
She stopped in the doorway and nodded to Trigger.
“Good evening, Trigger,” she said. “You two are working late tonight.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Trigger bobbed his head, glancing at John Henry as he did so. “We, uh, ran into some trouble in the north pasture.”
John Henry looked sharply at him.
“Well,” Varina said evenly, “no matter. We kept dinner warm for you. It’s waiting in the kitchen.”
Trigger waited for John Henry’s nod before scampering off. He was too well acquainted with the Evans to want to be in the middle of a family discussion.
When he was gone, Varina went and sat in the armchair, lowering herself carefully and smoothing her skirts as she did. John Henry kept his eyes on the fire place. The air chilled at night, so a small fire was always started at the end of the day. With Helen expecting in a few short weeks, the extra precaution was considered even more necessary.
When John Henry didn’t speak, Varina did.
“The north pasture?” she asked.
John Henry seized the poker and stabbed at the logs.
“Broken fence again,” he muttered. “We patched it. Thomas around?”
“He’s upstairs, with Helen.”
She waited another moment, then said, “I understand you paid a call on Matthew Goodnight this afternoon.”
With a growl, John Henry threw the poker back into the stand and began to stride about the floor impatiently.
“According to Josie Walsh, it didn’t go well,” Varina ventured.
“Josie Walsh!” he said, with disdain. “What does she know about anything?”
“She was under the impression that someone pulled a gun today, John Henry. That someone pulled a gun on you after you attacked Matthew Goodnight.”
He stopped in front of her.
“I couldn’t let him get away with printing that article,” he said. “Not when it’ll affect Thomas. You know it’ll hurt his chances in the election – it’ll hurt his chances with anything.”
She looked up at him levelly. It was moments like these that he looked most like his father – a big man. Too big, she sometimes thought.
“And do you think he’ll print a retraction now?” she asked, ice in her tone.
He hesitated, then turned away, only just refraining from swearing.
“We can’t just let him do this!” he muttered through gritted teeth and his fist came down on the mantelpiece, making the china dolls dance. “Something must be done!”
Varina Evans waited a few moments. In dealing with John Henry, she found that some of the techniques she employed on her husband were most effective. No one would have accused the late John Thomas Evans of being a whipped man, but then few knew Varina very well. And though the son was very much like the father, there was one difference: John Henry was much more bullheaded than John and try as she might, she could only influence, not control.
He is much more like me than his father in that respect, she thought. He’s his own man. I can only do so much with him. He is like his father – but he is not John.
She waited until she was ready, then said, “Elizabeth Walsh was here today.”
John Henry turned, frowning. She watched his hands flex.
“What did she want?” he asked.
Varina drew in a breath and looked up at him steadily. “She came to tell me what I already knew. You’re right, John Henry. We have got to do something about Matthew Goodnight.”
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